"The Foreignness of Languages" and Literary Translation

                                                 Brother Anthony, An Sonjae (Sogang Univeristy, Seoul)

     When we read a translation into English of a work of literature originally written in another language and enquire about "the author", the response is potentially a complex one. Just who should take responsibility and credit for the work in its translated form? The original author? or the translator? How correct is the common assumption that a "good translation" merely  transmits the original work essentially unchanged except for the words? Can there be a "good translation" of a weak poem?

     We experience related problems daily, unconsciously, in watching films on television where Americans, Italians, Russians, or Chinese all seem to be perfectly fluent in Korean. Yet we know  that none of these characters can "in reality" speak a word of Korean. It is convenient for Korean viewers to hear the dialogues in their own language, rather than have them dubbed on, but if we stop to think at all, the suspension of disbelief is stretched to breaking point. We know that the sounds the moving lips are producing are not Korean but English or French or Chinese.

     A film that is not dubbed but subtitled offers a quite different experience. Likewise, the physical presence of the original work beside its translation in a parallel texts edition transforms the reader's perception of the nature and function of the translation; clearly it is there as a step-ladder to the original. Such translations can be regarded as "cribs", they will no longer be needed once the  eader has learned from them what the original means. The presence of the original beside the translation obviously demands extremely "literal" translation, since the readers will be eager to pass from the one to the other.

     Translations of Latin, French, or German works published in Europe are often read in parallel with the original and strive to mirror it, while Korean, Polish, or Swahili literature translated into Western languages is not usually published in parallel texts. The translation has to stand in place of the original, which will remain inaccessible to the readers. After all, very few European or American readers have any knowledge of Korean, Polish, or Swahili.

     When we publish translations of works by Korean writers and put their names at the head of our versions, are we not creating a similar kind of contradiction to that offered by the dubbed film? They cannot and did not write this English text, we know that. If the translator makes So Chong Ju or Ko Un sound like an English or American poet, that is to falsify their reality, because they are not; yet how can they be made to sound like Koreans? By using some kind of "Konglish"? Surely not. This suggests that intercultural translation involves an act of de- authorizing or of  re- authorizing. It goes far beyond any simple notion of the "equivalence of terms".

     Professor Marshall Pihl, of the Center for Korean Studies at the University of Hawai'i, died this summer. He devoted his life to the globalization of Korean culture, literature in particular; his death is a great loss to all who are working to bring Korea to the attention of the outside world. At the First P.E.N  Seminar of Foreign Scholars and Translators of Korean Literature, he told us this:

        The successful internationalization of Korean literature
     must begin with the question of reader acceptance, it must
     begin with an analysis of the needs of the ultimate
     readers. Why offer what they won't read?

     He was concerned that too often mediocre works of Korean literature have been translated into weak English then published thanks to subsidies from Korean agencies. As a result, many foreign readers believe that no translated Korean literature is worth reading.

     It is important to reflect on the difference that exists between the Korean literary world and that inhabited by the foreign readers who form the potential audience for our translations. If Korean writers of poetry and fiction are not in creative relationship with what is being written and read worldwide, it may prove difficult for their works to interest readers outside of Korea, even if they are translated faithfully. At the same time, translators need to have a sound idea of how poems or novels are being written in English today, and how translations from other cultures are being done, if their translations from Korean are to have any deep impact abroad.

     If an author or poet writes with the tastes and expectations of too limited an audience in mind, the result may not be interesting for other readers. In order for Korean literature to become world literature, it is not enough to offer huge sums of money in support and prizes to translators. Korean writers have to become truly world-class writers and this demands that Korean readers become world-class readers. After all, it is not to belittle Korean writers to say that their literary tradition is
a young and developing one. There are even Korean critics who wonder if Korean literature has really begun to be written! Although that might be considered a fairly abstract and ideological question, given the mountains of books by Korean writers on sale in all the bookstores.

     Turning to translation, in a recent article published in Poetry Review (Vol. 84 No. 3, Autumn 1994 page 52), Jerzy Jarniewicz--a Polish scholar of English poetry--suggested three main reasons why people translate poetry: first he mentions "cultural ambassadors, whose aim is to introduce English readers to what they believe is the best in the culture they translate from." This recalls the view that writers admired in Korea must surely be admired outside if only they are translated, underpinning the subsidies offered by the various Korean foundations.

     A second group he sees as poets who make translations of works that interest them in order to effect an evolution in their own poetic tradition. A famous example is Ezra Pound, who was not deeply committed to the study of Old English or Provencal, and who knew no Chinese when he wrote Cathay. In this case the main commitment is to the translator's own literature, translations
are often free renderings rather than precise imitations.

     The third group he sees as mainly consisting of those who choose to translate a poet's work because of purely personal considerations. The poet is a friend, or an acquaintance, or a rather unknown poet that the translator happens to admire. In this case the cultural authorites at home may be irritated to see foreigners reading a "lesser" or "unknown" writer while the established names remain untranslated and unknown.

     Whatever the reason for a translation, we still have to reflect more deeply on the nature of the enterprise and what hope it has of success. The discussion of theories of translation is now a fully developed academic subject in its own right. Reading George Steiner's revised edition of After Babel or Willis Barnstone's The Poetics of Translation can only be a humbling experience; the erudition revealed by such writers is staggering. The dimensions given to the debate by thinkers like them and Walter Benjamin in "The Task of the Translator" reach back to the Fall of Man and the confusion of Babel while looking forward to the eternal silence of the perfect speech act which is the divine Word in which all the diversity of human discourse is translated into an eternal unity like the fragments of a broken bowl. Wondering how to translate makkolli into English suddenly becomes a very marginal activity

     Fundamentally, it can be argued that translating is not a matter of multilingual skills, that it covers all our efforts to comprehend what a person or text is expressing, even in our own language. Translating is the means of all communication. Arguments are often the result of mis- translations: "I told you I was going to be late..."; "I thought you said you loved me?" "I didn't mean you to take it like that...". Words offer the illusion that we can say something to someone and be understood; language is the art of deception. Poetry is language skating on thin ice. Translators fish through a hole in the ice. All messages, written or spoken, provoke guesswork and poems are the best of all riddles, as the Anglo-Saxons knew. Or as Walter Benjamin wrote: "all translation is only a provisional way of coming to terms with the foreignness of languages".

     In order to illustrate what the "foreignness" of modern English poetic language can be, we may take two short poems by one of England's younger contemporary poets, Wendy Cope. The first is called "Loss":

     The day he moved out was terrible --
     That evening she went through hell.
     His absence wasn't a problem
     But the corkscrew had gone as well.

The second is entitled "Another Unfortunate Choice":

     I think I am in love with A.E.Housman,
     Which puts me in a worse-than-usual fix.
     No woman ever stood a chance with Housman
     And he's been dead since 1936.

Wendy Cope, whose first volume "Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis" was published in 1986, is one of England's most seriously-minded younger poets, an evaluation supported by her best-selling status and by the title of her latest volume, "Serious Concerns". She stands in the great English poetic tradition of wit. One critic once wrote that she and certain other poets "write to amuse", to
which she replied in another poem:

     Write to amuse? What an appalling suggestion!
     I write to make people anxious and miserable and to worsen
       their indigestion.

     The point of quoting these poems can be summed up in a consideration of corkscrews, or rather the lack of them in the Korean drinking culture where there are almost no corks. In addition, solitary drinking at home is an activity not likely to be mentioned in a Korean poem. Beyond which, few Korean poets would feel any need to downplay or mock the tragic overtones of
"i-byol / parting" that plays such a large part in Korean culture.

     Mention of Housman compounds the problems; without a footnote, who is going to guess that this famous dead poet only liked young men? Besides, Koreans are not given to self-mockery of the "isn't that just my luck" kind. It seems doubtful whether these poems can be translated into Korean so that they 'make people anxious and miserable and worsen their indigestion' yet give intense pleasure and sell in thousands.

     Poems like these (and most English poems are equally kultur- spezifisch really) illustrate very well a fundamental and little- discussed difficulty in literary translation: the translator is trying to construct bridges between cultures that are far apart and moving in different directions. Different cultures are by definition different from one another. Difference is what makes life interesting, of course; sameness is often equated with familiarity and boredom. Yet Greek philosophers were convinced that we can only know similarities, that mortals cannot know gods.

     This echoes something Koreans keep telling us: "No foreigner can ever feel the deep nuances in Korean poetry". Vice-versa must also be true, of course: no Korean can possibly feel the deep
nuances of English poetry. What precisely is meant by such talk of nuances? They can only be those inherent in every language, part of its specific essence, the features composing that language's "foreignness".

     Here is the first stanza of a Korean poem translated by me into English: Kwi-ch'ok-do, by So Chong Ju:

     The path my love took is speckled with tears.
     Playing his flute, he began the long journey
     to western realms, where azaleas rain down.
     Dressed all in white so neat, so neat,
     my love's journey's too long, he'll never return.

     This version bears no direct resemblance to the original in sound or rhythms; I do not see how it can be otherwise, given the immense distance between the two languages. I have not tried to reproduce the onomatopoeia of the first line's "nunmul arong arong", convinced as I am that this kind of sound-play is utterly specific to the Korean language and has no valid equivalent in English, where onomatopoeia is mostly a childish game.

     This translation is comprehensible to English speakers as far as the words are concerned. What, though, of the poetic experience that it was written to convey? Even to Korean readers this cannot be an easy poem to feel. The translation is a poem- like paraphrase striving to bring across a few scraps of an irretrievably complex whole that can only exist as such in its original language.

     George Steiner (After Babel p. 351) quotes Dryden's definition of to paraphrase: "to produce the text which the foreign poet would have written had he been composing in one's own tongue". But So Chong Ju will never compose in English, while I am not So Chong Ju and I cannot be his English alter ego. Yet that must be what I am hoping to become if I translate his work. This poem would not have been written as it stands if the poet had been Australian, or Norwegian, or  Cornish, writing in English. It only exists because So Chong Ju wrote his poem in Korean.

     Already between individuals much differs; when literary cultures differ widely, the general presuppositions that condition discourse no longer apply and the reference of words is left floating on a wild and stormy sea. In a sense it is far easier to translate between Korean and English,  recisely because we have to abandon all hope of close and complete representation from the outset. There is virtually no simple correspondance in grammar or vocabulary, word order or  cultural resonance. Most books on translation theory discuss translating from one European language into another, where the cultures and languages are so close and so familiar to one another that the translator can and must try to bring across every slightest nuance. Yet even then there is never a perfect equivalent.

     The question as to how we can decide if a translation is a good one is a very popular one in Korea, although a moment's reflexion on the multiple forms of translation possible would seem to suggest that there are no clear objective criteria by which to answer it. Some claim that the quality of a translation is mainly determined by its literal "fidelity", its closeness to the words and forms of the original. Now poetic images and literary metaphors are conditioned by cultural factors and grammatical constructs. Yet if we follow the original poetic forms, some of the words and images will have to be changed or  omitted. A few German translators, Holderlin for example, have created a new language by following the Greek word order in translating the classics in as literal a manner as possible, because they felt that Greek was superior to German; similar feelings have played a role in the translation of the Bible, especially of the Old Testament from Hebrew.

     Many would argue that once a translator has finished translating a work, the result enters the potential canon of the language into which it has been translated. In that case, just as a "good poem" is any poem that someone decides is good, so a translation of a poem has to be judged as an independent poem. At the same time, we know that those who can go back to the original will always do so, if only to verify how much has been lost or added in order to give praise and blame where they are due.

     Absolute fidelity in translation is an illusory ideal reminding us of our archetypal dream of a pre-lapsarian unified tongue. We need only recall, with Benjamin, that the French word pain and the German word Brot are not the same because the bread eaten in the two countries differs in taste and texture as well as in the mode of eating.

     True, fidelity is a fundamental duty of the respectful translator, who desires to attain a state as near transparency as possible, in the hope that the qualities of the original text will bring praise to the original text's author. Yet as Barnstone insists against Benjamin, translators do not translate, they interpret. It is for this reason that those of us who translate should be very careful to respect the work of other translators, even if we disagree with some of the solutions they propose. There are many ways of rendering every phrase in every work, depending on the priorities a translator has decided on. The writing of polemical articles denouncing other people's translations, "translator- bashing", shows a lack of generosity and a failure to recognize the full variety of  approaches that can be considered as translation. If translators misunderstand something, or make some obvious error, it is normal courtesy to tell them in private and suggest revisions in future editions.

     Some famous translators read a page of their original text, shut the book, and write a page in the target language which may have only a vague relationship with the original. Others slave with dictionaries, metronomes, and rulers to make lines that have exactly the same number of syllables and the same stresses and sound-patterns as well as the same meaning as the original. Every translator will find readers to acclaim the result of their efforts; every translator has some reason for each word and grammatical form chosen. Even "mis-translations" may well be part of the translator's attempt to re-create the original text elsewhere.

     There can be as many different translations of a poem as anyone cares to make, and different people will produce different translations; it is not because some are "closer" to the original in some mechanical way that they will be "better" or even "more faithful": better than what, faithful to what? The best comparison might be with the "Theme and variations" in music, every translation being a new "Variation on a theme by...". Perhaps indeed we ought always to offer several versions of  every poem we translate, as a way to help the readers better encompass the full richness of the original. Benjamin has a deep reflection on certain works' quality of "translateability" that is a function of their established value, their "immortality", even.

     Certainly, translators always dream of a moment of perfect correspondance, when the gaps interfering with communication are all overcome in a moment of perfect union. The spectre of the perfect translation is a powerful one that has sometimes to be exorcized. There can never be a full, perfect and exact translation from one language into another. What we offer are vague resemblances, unfocussed photos of remote beauties, travellers' tales that evoke uncertain images of often exotic landscapes in the hearers elsewhere while we know that to the people living in the work's native land, our exotic is their familiar everyday.

     A cluster of English verisons of Kim So-wol's "Chindallae- kkot"--admittedly parodic, since all translation is a form of parody--may serve to illustrate what has just been said. None claims to be a strictly "literal" translation, the possibility or utility of which is denied. The first is a relatively conservative rendering:

     When seeing me sickens you
     and you walk out
     I'll send you off without a word, no fuss.

     Yongbyon's mount Yaksan's
     by the armful I'll scatter in your path.

     With parting steps
     on those strewn flowers
     treading lightly, go on, leave.

     When seeing me sickens you
     and you walk out
     why, I'd rather die than weep one tear.

With a little more freedom in the line count, something closer to the original may be achieved:

     When you go away at last,
     sickened with the sight of me,
     know that I shall let you go,
     saying nothing, make no fuss;

     but climbing high on Yongpyon's hills,
     there I'll pick azalea flowers,
     armfuls of purple, just to spread
     along the pathways as you go.

     Then go, with muffled parting steps
     trampling down those flowers you find
     strewn before your departing feet;

     and when you go away at last,
     sickened with the sight of me,
     know that for the life of me
     I'll not shed tears then, no, not one.

But some readers still long for rhyme:

     I know you'll leave me one fine day.
     You're sick of me, is what you'll say;
     dumb and numb, I'll send you on your way.

     Ahead of you I'll scatter showers
     great armfuls of azalea flowers
     from Yongbyon mountains' springtime bowers.

     And as you go, each step you make
     lightly on the flowers that break
     will echo as the leave you take.

     I know you'll leave me one fine day.
     You're sick of me, is what you'll say;
     but I'll not weep then, come what may.

Or perhaps something in a more hearty Hardy mode?

The day will come when you loathe me
and leave me;
Goodbye, that's all, it's over.

I'll have them strew your road with
from Yaksan in Yongbyon

Then be off with you
marching briskly
over those withered petals.

The day will come when you loathe me
and leave me;
you think I'll cry? Not on your life. I won't!

Or as a melancholy pop song:

When you say goodbye
turn aside and walk away
I'll say farewell
     and not ask you why.

I'll gather flowers for love of you
azaleas from some springtime hill
and scatter them beneath your feet
     as you walk away.

Then go
crushing with your parting steps
my humble offerings of flowers.

When you say goodbye
turn aside and walk away
I tell you now that on that day
     I'll not shed a tear.

     The main problem in translating this poem is not in the place names or in the idiomatic chugo-do of the last stanza, it is a question of tone. Or rather the tone perceived by most Korean readers. The poem is generally read as if it lacked tonal complexity. People put on soulful voices and explain that it is a sad and courageous statement about parting. Yet the whole point is that the speaker, universally felt to be female, is projecting an imagined separation at a time when there is still trust, unity, and communication between the lovers. The poem is a joke between people who grow closer by their evocation of a possible future breakdown in their relationship, a breakdown they do not believe can come in fact.

     Modern readers in the outside world can enjoy the irony of such a reading, far more than the sentimental misreading popular in Korea. The tone can be made even more modern, perhaps:

One day you'll walk out on me, I know,
saying you need a change of air;
you hope I understand, you do so hate a fuss.

I suppose you'd love to see me dancing
somewhere out ahead of you,
scattering azaleas in your path, perhaps?

I can just see you there, prancing along
squashing those poor flowers underfoot
as you fade away into the sunset.

Oh yes, you'll walk out one day, I know,
saying you need a change of air;
you think I'll mind? I won't, you know.

      Yet no matter how we translate such a work, no Irish / Australian / Canadian reader is ever going to insist that every schoolchild in their country memorize this poem. This is the Big Problem when we try to translate poems that have some kind of cult status in their country of origin. The same thing happens when we hear "To be or not to be" in Hamlet acted in French. It simply is not the same thing, and that is not a matter of good  or bad translating.

     Why not go back to Wendy Cope for a moment?

          When they ask me: 'Who's your favourite poet?'
          I'd better not mention you,
          Though you certainly are my favourite poet
          And I like your poems too.

     Ask a publisher which is his "favourite" book and he will probably name his most rapidly selling title. His "best" book is his best seller. Words can have different meanings. It is not because many people say they like a poem that I have to like it or even admire it. Your sublime may be my ridiculous.

     To illustrate that, why not "translate" part of a famous English poem that a lot of people say is their favourite poem and is listed among the Great Poems of the English Language? Here is poor Wordsworth's "Daffodils" rendered into other words:

     Sometimes a single cloud
     drifts across the sky,
     oblivious of the landscape;
     one day I was strolling
     in similar isolation
     when suddenly I noticed
     a swathe of yellow flowers
     at the foot of some trees
     down by the water's edge;
     the wind was making them bend and flex
     in quite an athletic manner:
     What aerobic daffodils! I thought.

     That too is one possible translation. It certainly illustrates the Law which says that no poem can be paraphrased since its essence inheres in the words composing it. Any paraphrase is an act of betrayal or parody, decomposing the poem into a text that is not the poem. Every translation is a paraphrase, a re-phrasing, and a parody. But everything we say or write is equally parodic, I suspect, parodic of the fictional images we have constructed in the games we call Identity and Being.

     This is why Chaucer's Nun's Priest's Tale is so important for us all, with its clear final message: Taketh the fruit, and let the chaf be stille. If you like it, it's fruit: grab it and gobble. If you don't like it, leave it alone, it's useless chaff for you. Only what the Nun's Priest in his enthusiasm fails to tell us is that we are going to have big arguments with people who want us to eat what we consider to be chaff and not touch what we reckon to be quite obviously delicious fruit. One person's great poem is their neighbor's bugbear and there is little point in asking for an opinion poll. The subjectivity of aesthetic standards looms large on the horizon, so that a lot of people prefer the dictatorship that often flourishes in the name of literary criticism.

     As a translator, it is infuriating to be told that this or that Korean poem or novel is a famous work and therefore a great work and that if this is a wonderful Korean work it will naturally be a wonderful English work deserving the Nobel Prize once it is translated properly. There seems to be no awareness in people of the possibility of divergent responses in different cultures as to the interest and value of any literary work, even a famous Korean one.

     Sometimes there has been a deliberate campaign in Korea to promote a poem as a model of something, sometimes it has just happened, but in any case the result is clear. Certain poems are given the rank of National Cultural Monuments possessed of unquestionable merit. However, the outside world is not going to admire a work of Korean literature just because it is Korean, or because in Korea it is famous. On the world market every product needs to have what the buyers want. To know what they want, it is important to examine what they are inclined to buy. Or in our case, what they are inclined to read and admire, which is not separate from what people have read and admired in centuries past, the literary tradition in all its complexity.

     Korean writers must not try to write like American or French writers, of course, but they ought to be aware of what American and French, African and South American, writers are doing today, at least as a stimulus and a challenge. Harold Bloom calls it the "anxiety of influence", out of which every writer forges a personal identity within a literary tradition that they reinvent by a combination of adhesion and resistance. In the early years of modern Korean literature, there was an intensely creative, if traumatic encounter with a few works of European literature through Japanese translations. It is worth asking whether today anything like the same degree of transcultural interaction is happening?

     It is certain that translators will continue to translate Korean literature into other languages as it is written. In the other direction, it is to be hoped that Korean scholars of foreign literature will spend much more time than hitherto producing faithful, readable, powerful Korean translations of major literary works, ancient and modern, from all over the globe, so that Korean writers and readers have access to the worldwide literary tradition into which we are introducing their work by our translations.

     Koreans reading good translations of the major works of  nineteenth and twentieth century fiction, drama, and poetry written outside of Korea, can hardly affirm that Korean literature has nothing to learn from any of it, that twentieth century Korean literature is of a quality equal to any. Blinkered nationalism has an easy ride in Korea, and it would be tragic if nobody dared express the hope that through contact with the great works of the world's literary traditions, Korean writers will write better, deeper, more beautiful, and more universal works in the future.

     Those Korean academics who have discovered the beauties and qualities of works written outside of Korea have a duty to introduce those works to Korean readers and writers in their own language in translations that do justice to the originals. That will surely lead Korean writers and readers to a broader, deeper comprehension of what literature can be, and will certainly inspire the production of works more truly worth translating than a lot of what has so far been written. Translation is the enemy of parochialism and mediocrity, it is the expression of an endless dissatisfaction; the translator is driven by a passion to cross frontiers, to import and export riches, to enable people divided by language and culture to communicate, and to enable the development of a mutually enriching literary tradition across the entire face of the globe.

Main works quoted:

Willis Barnstone. The Poetics of Translation. 1995.

Harold Bloom. The Anxiety of Influence. 1973.

Harold Bloom. The Western Canon. 1994.

George Steiner. After Babel Second Edition. 1992.

Translations of Korean Literature by Br Anthony

1)   Ku Sang, Selected Poems Wastelands of Fire, Translated with
     an Introduction (London: Forest Books, 1990)

2)   Ku Sang, Infant Splendor, Translated from the Korean, with
     Introduction  (Seoul: Samseong Publishing Co, 1990)

3)   Ku Sang, River and Fields: a Korean Century, Translated
     from the Korean (London: Forest Books, 1991)

4)   Kim Kwang-kyu, Faint Shadows of Love, Translated from the
     Korean with an Introduction (London: Forest Books, 1991)

5)   Ko Un, Selected Poems The Sound of my Waves, Translated by
     Brother Anthony, Young-Moo Kim with Introduction and Notes
     (Ithaca: Cornell East Asia Series, 1993)

6)   So Chong Ju, Midang, The Early Lyrics, 1941-1960,
     Translated from the Korean with Introduction and Notes
     (London, Forest Books, 1994)

7)   Yi Mun-yol, The Poet, Translated by Chung Chong-hwa and
     Brother Anthony with Introduction and Notes (London: The
     Harvill Press, 1995)

8)   Ch'on Sang Pyong, Back to Heaven, Translated by Brother
     Anthony, Young-Moo Kim with Introduction and Notes (Ithaca:
          Cornell East Asia Series, 1995)

9)   Shin Kyong-Nim, Farmers' Dance, Translated by Brother Anthony, Young-Moo Kim with Introduction and Notes (DapGae Publishing, 1999)